A Weekend in… Lewes

Overview and history

Founded as a trading port on the formerly navigable River Ouse, Lewes certainly has an interesting history, which has led to a hodgepodge of architectural styles, from half-timbered medieval townhouses (including Anne of Cleves’ House, now a museum) to Georgian crescents. In Anglo-Saxon times, when its towncentre street pattern was established, with vertiginous twittens emerging at odd angles from a straight-as-an-arrow High Street, it boasted its own mint. The Normans built one of their first English castles there, a large section of which still stands, as well as a huge Priory, once the biggest ecclesiastical building in the country, smashed to smithereens in 1537 on the orders of Thomas Cromwell (you can still walk through the substantial ruins of its toilets). The Dripping Pan, the town’s football stadium, was probably a Tudor jousting ground and can lay claim to being the second-longest continuously running sports arena in the UK. Pells Pool, built by the Victorians, is the oldest outdoor swimming pool in the country, fed by local springs (which means it can be one of the coldest, too). Lewes is the County Town of East Sussex, where Crown Court cases are heard, and where the County Council runs its headquarters, from an ugly Brutalist block. This makes it – administratively speaking, at least – more important than neighbouring city, Brighton, which was ‘invented’ as a resort by the 18th-century Lewesian, Dr Richard Russell.

And then there’s ‘Bonfire’, which constitutes much more than an annual evening of organised fiery mayhem. There are no fewer than seven Bonfire societies in Lewes, with thousands of members, who prepare for the event all year, raising money, making torches, fixing up their costumes. Bonfire is the social glue which holds Lewes together, upending class hierarchies, enabling lawyers and brickies to become comrades, associates, mates. The shenanigans on the night of the Fifth almost defy description, the height of most Lewesians’ social calendar (though some escape it).

Non-locals are discouraged from attending: don’t, whatever you do, call it a fancy-dress parade.


For many years Lewes didn’t have a permanent cinema, but that all changed six years ago when a local philanthropist, Robert Senior, funded Lewes Depot, a beautiful flint-clad three-screener which has fast developed a reputation as one of the very best independent cinemas in the country. This year’s exciting news is that Charleston Trust have invested in a new hub in the old District Council buildings round the corner on Southover

Road, where they will put on high-level art exhibitions as well as running workshops, plus a shop and cafe. Now, it seems, the town boasts a ‘cultural quarter’ which is bound to attract a new brand of day-tripper.

Hopefully visitors will also see fit to visit the commercial galleries at the top of town, such as the well-established Star Brewery Gallery and Chalk Gallery (an artists’ collective), and the recently inaugurated WIA (Women in Art). Or, down the hill in Cliffe, the excellent Meiklejohn Gallery. Reeves is the longest-running photographic studio in the world, run by the same family since 1855. Periodically they arrange light-box trails of photos from their archive in shop fronts throughout town: the latest edition, featuring 80 images, runs from September 7 to October 1.

Live performances can be seen at the All Saints (a deconsecrated church), and the Con Club, where musicians of the calibre of Sun Ra Arkestra, Martin Carthy and FaUSt have played in recent years. Lewes Little Theatre put on a rich programme of am-dram plays, often by Alan Ayckbourn (or his son Philip, a Lewes resident). And not to forget, every autumn Lewes is at the centre of a month-long, district-wide open-house/open gallery festival: Artwave.

Lewes is also the hopping-off point for several well-established cultural venues a short drive from town, notably Glyndebourne Opera House and Charleston, which run shuttle buses from the station to their events, and Farleys House & Gallery. Perhaps the new venture at Southover House will encourage punters to ponder a little longer before heading back to London.


Central Lewes is a good place to buy fancy candles and limewashed trugs, but you’re hard pressed if it’s onion seeds or tap washers that you’re after. Darcy’s sells classy men’s clothing; Union Music Store is a treasure trove of vinyl grooves; Radical Giving sell stylish ethical gifts in the Needlemaker’s, an old factory converted into a cool shopping mall. For high-end second-hand books there’s Bow Windows Bookshop. And if it’s antiques you’re after, just head down to Cliffe High Street, where there are several well-stocked shops and emporia (not to forget the Flea Market on Market Street).

Eating and Drinking

The town has long been on CAMRA-type drinkers’ radar due to Harveys, which has brewed in Lewes since 1790, largely making traditional beers such as Best and Old. But two new breweries have wakened the scene up recently, rising on the crest of the craft/APA revolution, producing fruitier, hoppier beers. Both Beak and Abyss run taprooms alongside their breweries, open at the weekend, with street-van food on offer. Beak run an international beer festival – These Hills – on Lewes’ outskirts every June. Lewes also houses a wealth of fine pubs: we recommend The Lansdown for atmosphere, The Lewes Arms for a traditional vibe and dwyle flunking (don’t ask), The Swan for roasts (book well in advance), and The Gardener’s for its variety of ales.

There are, too, several fine independent restaurants. New kids on the block are Squisito, in the Needlemaker’s, who serve home-made pasta and local wine, and Dill, at the end of Cliffe High Street, not long opened but already included in the latest Michelin Guide. Pestle & Mortar is a great little lunch destination for Thai noodles (also try their Banhmi heroes), and Café du Jardin is the place to go for French-style bistro. The pizzeria Rustico – a Sussex-wide chain – makes you feel like you’ve been beamed into Italy for an hour, offering very decent Neapolitan-style pizzas. Oh, and there’s Fork for modern British dishes, Zorba for mezze, Flint Owl Bakery for freshly made sandwiches and cakes and Caccia & Tails for a variety of flavoursome focaccia slices. And there’s nothing like a cup of tea and a wedge of cake on a sunny day in the beautiful Grange Gardens. The best coffee? Tigermoth, at The Sip Café, opposite WIA Gallery. Arguably.


This is where central Lewes really falls down, though we hear that the White Hart, a storied former coaching inn on the High Street, is to be given a welcome makeover, and there is a Premier Inn. Your best bet is to scour the B&B apps. We can personally recommend centrally placed Monty’s, and The Tack Barn, a former hunting lodge near Ringmer, as a luxurious out-of-town option.